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To Loharket

An easy ride, first down to Baijnath, then along a pleasant enough river valley through properous farmland with villages of the usual plains-India concrete, to Bageshwar. The town is alleged to be a pilgrimage centre but we didn’t see any temples as nice as those at Baijnath, and it’s a noisy place where the main road traffic is forced through the bends of narrow street. It does have a restaurant with actual printed menus and glazed windows, but even these luxuries didn’t entice us into staying in town. Instead we carried on up the valley towards the Pindari trek in the hope of a more peaceful spot. The road was certainly quieter, imperceptibly gently climbing through lush paddies and forested slopes, towards Kapkot.

Kapkot was big enough to have large banks but dismayingly no hotel. The appealing freshly-painted PWD was in theory stayable; in practice full. Try Bharari Bazaar, they said. Bharari Bazaar was one big fireworks emporium with one hotel, the Glashiar, a smoke-black tea stall downstairs, scruffy candy pink and blue concrete upstairs. It comprised a number of tiny cell-like rooms, with beds barely more than trestles, one shared lav, a water hose gurgling down to somewhere in the black kitchen below: about as grim as it gets in looks, but actually pretty clean, and the owners as pleasant as any. It was a pity about the all-night yakking from the old guys in the next room. I set my mind to a calm meditative state and tried to distance myself from the tests and trials of this human life, with limited success.

It wasn’t far up the road to Song. On the ride up we encountered many more roads leading from our main road than are shown on the Nest and Wings map, and we tried to majority-vote from our three or four inconsistent maps what villages there were, and speculated where the roads might go if we were a road and wanted to go somewhere sensible.

Song’s part of the Danu bros empire and here were our guys and some biscuits. Pankaj was very insistent on taking most of our luggage for the next stage. We resisted, for after all, it was only a few km to Loharkhet. Then we saw the road. We were casting about looking for a sensible way up the hillside when Pankaj indicated something we had first mistaken for a drystone wall. We hurled ourselves at it and conquered the first section, hoping something about it would relent. It did not, but I suppose it showed some variety in its tortures so that when for example we had to haul the bikes over the crevasses of a landslide at least we were spared the desperate eyeballs on stalks balancing act of trying to keep upright and the wheels moving over a steeply raked boulder field.

The reward was that we got to loaf around at Loharkhet for most of the day. The resthouse has spacious grounds and a panoramic view of the valley: finely carved terraces and bright painted houses, green fields and cherry trees in pink blossom, dark forests and craggy mountain ridges. Just below is a rustic and sturdily proportioned shrine, whitewashed walls and great pile of slabs for a roof, faded flags and a small spire. It sits in a small grassy walled with more stone slabs and beyond, the ground falls away out of sight, so the space seems suspended in air thousands of feet above the lower ground. People are working in the fields and we hear them call to each other and to shout to their oxen. A young man with a small flock plays on a pipe. Others pass to and fro on the main mule route – we watch another mule train winding in and out of sight towards us, then past the resthouse, then up beyond towards the pass.

Dhakuri Khal

Mike had suggested we have the bikes portered up to the top of the pass – it’s what they do on his trips, and given they do this, there wasn’t any losing face, and we took up the offer. Predictably it was the usual stonebuilt steep mule track and entirely unrideable except for the odd few yards. The weather threatened cloud and I sensed a race for the views. As it happended I was beaten to the top by the advance guard of the cloud: the ridge of Nanda Khat opposite was a splendid display, but the more finely cut wedge of Nanda Kot was doing its own tantalising dance of the seven veils in the mists. The pass cut through the ridge marked by a red gateway, temple bells, wind-ripped flags and a incense sticks burning by a small mossy shrine. The long mule train jangled through, and later a strung-out party of young locals with Diwali posters and mobile phones.

We reposessed the bikes but riding the path down to Dhakuri was beyond us. Dhakuri is an airy grassy meadow but there’s nothing more than an abandoned-looking rest house and a couple of dhabas, a small solar cell at the back of a derelict storehouse, from which a wire led to telephone sitting on a table. The phone rang; Pankaj ran over to answer it. And we made use of the flat grassy meadow to ride around in circles in some sort of pretence to Pankaj et al that we could and would actually put to some use these bicycles they had lugged over a 3000m pass for us.

It became a little more rideable later and interesting enough to prompt some learning of skills rather than the usual giving into defeat. Except I suppose I have to mention the section where a substantial part of the valley side had been taken out on a landslide and the path took a long steep detour around it. That was a push. But we shouldn’t dwell only on the practicalities. We rounded a side-ridge to a view of Khatti, in the foreground of a magnificent ensemble of valley and mountain. The village a generous handful of homes spilling down into tiers of golden terraces; its houses a mix of bright blue, green and white paint and warm biscuity drystone; beyond, the massive forested valley leads to higher bare rocky slopes and onwards to the snowcapped mountains.

To the glacier and back

We spent some time evaluating the schedule for the next two days. We estimated the gradients. We didn’t like the results of our calculations so we thought we’d think about the km count instead. We speculated on the number of steps involved, and asked Pankaj, who said there weren’t many. This wasn’t entirely true as there were quite a lot but mostly the path up was gratifyingly rideable.

And, by all the gods, it was tremendous fun. That’s not to say it was easy. It was generally steep enough to make things difficult and peppered with just the right number and quality of obstacles to make it a rewarding for us. It may not have been more efficient than walking, especially compared with the walking as done by Pankaj and Chammu. The ride wasn’t all interesting rocks but there were long stretches where we could just ride along and look at the surroundings. We had lush forests and majestic trees; exuberant waterfalls and the rocks a kaleidoscope of greens, intricate folds and textures of lichens and mosses. The walls of the valley towered high above us, hiding the snow peaks except now and then a fleeting glimpse.

Then suddenly the mountains threw their control. The sky thickened to grey and a fine spray turned to hail, then snow. The mountainsides blanked out to to elemental grey masses, the valley above and below and all contexts of where we were, erased to a void. But we weren’t that far from Phurkiya. All that we registered about Phurkiya was that the huts were basic and bare and reassuringly solid, and the tea and hot food ready organised. The kitchen, black and smoky from the woodfire, we sat on sacks on wooden benches and piled ourselves full with dhal and rice.

The weather cleared overnight and we would have gone to marvel at the extravagant stars if it hadn’t been so cold. When we got up, the sun was about to strike the reborn mountains. I could barely wait, even for aloo parantha; I half-ran up the path as far as I dared to see the brillant white peaks drawn out against the infinite blue above and black shadow below.

We started the journey proper well before the sun hit the valley, first crossing a frozen stream on icy stepping stones – Chammu and Pankaj ferrying the bikes – and hauling the bikes up the other side before being able to ride again. The valley began to open out more and we were surrounded by high ridge of white peaks, tethered to the earth by the grey of rock and the gold of the thin grass. The valley slowly bent round to the right and the glacier came into view below the peak of Changuch, a stunning and perfect swathe of white. The path was easy now, but still dusted with yesterday’s snow.

In this wild and overwhelmingly inhuman arena there are tiny and fragile elements of people’s shelters, here and there are some shepherd’s huts, and further on a homely stone building with red Shiva flags – Baba Ashram. Here Babaji, the Economist-reading Swami, brews a good tea flavoured with cloves, and importantly fitting to the grand surrounding, in pint-sized mugs.

We left the bikes and walked towards Zero Point, crossing a stream and climbing gradually towards the top of the ridge. To our right the ground sloped down to the valley. All around were snow peaks and an awed silence; the glacier to the left between Changuch and Nanda Khat. Then the ridge ended abruptly. In front of us, the ground crashed away, ripped into huge jagged shreds by centuries of thrashing by ice and rock and weather. To our right the ground still sloped gently, but to the left, we could now see how the ridge had been torn away under us, and a sheer drop to a chaos of ice and earth and deep rents. We’d been sitting just below the top, but Chammu showed the 5mm crack I’d been sitting on. We retreated to safer ground and spent some time simply being in this marvellous and terrifying place.

We returned to the Ashram for more tea and a long chat with Babaji. He said we could photograph the barrel. The barrel was a standard sort of Indian black plastic water barrel and although we’d photographed his temple flags and courtyard, we didn’t rate his barrel as being all that photogenic. Then we saw the bharal in the distance lower down the valley.

The descent was as fabulous as any ride on the planet. The snow had gone and the path was mostly grassy with the odd rock interest and nicely graded; not too difficult that you couldn’t take in the magnificent mountain-crowned valley. We left the broad arena and the path led us back down into the lower steeper valley; every rise gave us a dizzying view of the forests far below – it was like taking flight, we felt like we now had possession of the valley, the mountains and the whole world.

We dropped beyond Phurkiya to stop at Dwali. We’d met a few trekkers on the way up and some had stopped here: Randy from California and two guys from Kolkata. Dwali is at the junction with another fine valley, the Kaphni Nala, though maybe its most remarkable and unexpected interest is a snatched view of Nanda Devi east, a perfect little chunk of blond rock and snow, which came out from the clouds glowing in the last of the sun, some tim – e after the light had long left us to the shadows.

The next stage to return to Khatti was an easy morning, but the day after would have to somehow take us over the ridge again. There’s a recently built road and the plan for us was to take this road, which Mike calls the Geiry pass but which isn’t on the map. Now, about roads. If you cut a road in the Himalaya you can’t avoid having to cut away the hillside sharply and the hillside’s reaction to this treatment is to slide and collapse into the cut. This happens even without heavy monsoon rains, and there had been those this year. So while we had stretches of several hundred yards of decently smooth road, we had innumerable fallen trees and massive sections of landslide, and the bikes were a sod to lug over any one piece of these.

The pass was reached in a sense of relief rather than happy triumph and we hoped for some sort of ride down. We just got more of the same as the other side, and downhill doesn’t count for anything over landslides but makes it all the more frustrating. After more than an hour we saw Pankaj and Chammu and they took us down the steep footpath to Karmi: one of those great sprawly settlements, we walked through little stone built twisty zigzags, gardens, through threshing yards and temple precincts. It was lunchtime and we were aware of tasty aromas of spicy dhal, but our restaurant was somewhere near the lower end of the place. Even beyond here there was more interminable path to follow to the roadhead but it did become rideable. And then, what bliss to be on something effortlessly rideable. It was as an attractive valley as they all are but we weren’t in much of a mood to appreciate it. Pankaj and Chammu waited for a jeep; we met them in Kapkot for farewells.

We were delighted to find that the lovely freshy-painted PWD resthouse had a room free; even more delighted when we found the joyous Diwali celebrations in the temple next door were broadcast via powerful loudspeakers directly at our room!

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